Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Stretching boundaries

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While the government seems to have backed away from its inclusion for all agenda, the debate about the best way to educate children with special needs is by no means resolved. John D'Abbro looks at the future of special schools and inclusion.

It looks as though special schools are here to stay, now that the inclusion debate in England has taken a different turn.

With the creation of Children's Trusts and the impact of the Disability Discrimination Act coming to the fore, the task for leaders in the sector is now to define what these schools will look like and how they will operate in the future.

While my own experience is predominantly in the special education sector, some of the issues here also apply in the mainstream.
I should say here that I am ambivalent about the role of special schools. I have led New Rush Hall School in Essex for 15 years. The school was designated as a Trailblazer Specialist School in September 2005, in no small part because of its high value-added scores and the quality of the work of my colleagues.

The most effective special schools can increase pupils' life chances, as well as serving their community, yet ideologically, I hold an ambivalent position and do not really believe in them.

There will always be a case for educating some children outside of the mainstream. Mainstream is not the gold standard for all children, and sometimes they may just be better off in a residential school away from their parents.

But in my heart, I believe that we could educate the vast majority of children on one campus if we were prepared to pay to support all those with special needs. Could you envisage a school with the facilities to support a child with the most severe learning needs or complex medical issues, for example?

Yes, if you were able to spend several thousand pounds a day on supporting that pupil to be at school. Practically, it is possible. Philosophically, to me, it is highly desirable. But in our culture we do not have the mindset that says spending that kind of money to support pupils whose needs are more than ordinary is important.

Integration or inclusion

The tension with integrating many children needing special needs support within mainstream education, as I see it, is essentially one of access to learning, equal opportunities and fairness - not just for children with special needs but for all children. Pupils cannot learn properly if they don't feel safe. 

Feeling safe is a big issue for children. Sometimes pupils experiencing behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) manifest their anxiety and trauma by displaying unsafe behaviour, which disrupts the learning of those around them. Not only do they stop learning, but they prevent others from learning too.

Highlighting this tension, Ofsted's 2004 report said: "The admission of children with behavioural difficulties continues to be the hardest test of the inclusion framework...the one over which conflicts between meeting individual needs and efficient education for other children were the most problematic to reconcile."

It's important to keep the issue of equal opportunities squarely in mind. Let's not forget that it is only since 1974 that all children in our country have had a legal right to be educated.

But integration and inclusion are not the same. Integration is about putting pupils who have special needs in mainstream school for some of their education. Inclusion is a political issue to do with ensuring minority groups - such as children with special educational needs - are enabled to play a full part in society.

They are different things. For me inclusion is at the core of the human rights issue and the celebration of diversity.

In reality, I suspect that the government may have pulled back from its full integration policy because it is expensive. We already know that pupils with a special educational need cost more to educate than ordinary pupils and there have often been economies of scale in educating these children in segregated provision.

We should not loose sight of the fact that special schools have existed to also facilitate the smooth running of mainstream schools.


As I said, I wish we didn't have to have special schools but, given that we do, we have to look at making them as effective as possible.
One of the criticisms of special schools - and one of the arguments for the integration of special needs into mainstream education - is to do with scale.

Special schools are, it is said, so small that they cannot be as effective as bigger schools. They cannot offer the breadth of experiences and opportunities children need nor can they command sufficient leverage with their local authority. Federations give us the opportunity to address the issue of scale.

The New Rush Hall Group (NRH) comprises an all-age special school, three PRUs, the education department in an adolescent psychiatric unit, and a behavioural support outreach team. We are currently completing arrangements to open an early years provision. They are separate service areas and have separate heads and I strategically oversee the whole as headteacher (I feel uncomfortable with the term 'executive head').

This arrangement brings additional benefits in relation to roles. It is now commonly accepted that no one member of staff - ie a headteacher - can run a school on his or her own. The job is too big and too complex.

I believe the schools of today need managers with responsibility for the different boundaries, and in the case of the New Rush Hall Group my key role is to strategically manage the external boundaries.
But in order for children and staff to feel cared for, I believe they also need the physical presence of a head who is looking after their interests. In the NRH Group, the heads of each service area take up this role, amongst others. This synergy of roles is intended to ensure that the inside and outside school boundaries within the group are catered for.

Being a federation also gives us the opportunities to share staff and resources across the group. For example, the group shares one business manager who is a member of our leadership team. She ensures that the day-to-day management is efficient not only in the traditional financial and administrative terms but also in school improvement. This has a positive impact across the whole group.
There's an Italian saying: 'Aiuto rapido della grande famiglia' which roughly translated means 'Large family, quick help' and it encapsulates the idea.

It also gives us more leverage within the local authority. Instead of being one small school, we have all the resources for children experiencing BESD in the local authority. One outcome is that, within Redbridge LA, we send very few children with BESD to residential schools.

The federated approach has worked well for us and I believe it could be just as effective for others, whether it means mainstream schools getting together, perhaps in the run up to the introduction of behaviour collaboratives, or a mixture of mainstream and special.

Personalised learning

The other thing that special schools do well, compared with mainstream schools, is personalised learning. For us, the process of learning is often more valuable than the 'product' - the grade or qualification.
It is important to us that the children have access to resources to support their particular learning and that they feel learning to be a constructive process in which they play an active part.

Technology is one key to this and at New Rush Hall School, a big focus of our work is digital creativity. In my experience, children find the whole digital curriculum very motivating. 

Many pupils have access to technology in their lives out of school that is more advanced than they use at school. I recently asked one of the pupils to set up the WiFi connection on my mobile phone the other day because he knows how these things work better than I do.

But the national curriculum does not accurately reflect all that children are capable of creativity. I believe very strongly that children with special needs - and children in the mainstream too - would be better served by a curriculum which allows them to demonstrate their natural creativity through a programme of personalised learning. 

The curriculum is too focused on and driven by outcomes. I am staggered that in the technological age we still have a curriculum designed for an industrial age and a school year designed for an agricultural one. 

Every Child Matters vs standards agenda

The focus on outcomes presents problems elsewhere for special schools. If you could measure schools against the five ECM outcomes and compile league tables based on those results, rather than GCSE results, many special schools would come out better than mainstream schools. 

But how do you measure them? How do you estimate the impact of the intervention of a special school? You will never pick up some of the residual value-added elements if your only tool is the number of five A-Cs. But I think effective special schools can change a child's life.
This to me is why the Every Child Matters and standards agendas are incompatible. One is about caring about and empowering children so that they learn; the other is about getting children to pass exams. It's the process versus product dilemma again.

However, the single most important thing for me as a head is the quality of the relationships throughout the school. Despite what I said about technology, children don't come to our school because we offer lots of exciting digital kit. They come - and they stay - because they feel valued and cared for.

It behoves all of us, whether we work in segregated provision or the mainstream sector, to put children and learning at the forefront of our policy and practice, rather than teachers and teaching.

John D'Abbro leads the Rush Hall Group, a consortium which includes New Rush Hall School, an all-age special school. He received an OBE for services to special education in the 2007 new year's honours.

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